Before we begin, a spit-take warning. Put down your coffee cup. Step away from any food you might be consuming. Swallow. This could get real messy, real quick.
The National Football League headquarters in New York, which has annual revenues of around $9 billion, is considered by the Internal Revenue Service to be a tax exempt 501(c)6 "nonprofit" organization, with its commissioner, Roger Goodell, taking home $29.5 million a year. You were warned. That's a nasty coffee stain on the wallpaper.
This piece is being published on a Sunday, the high holy day of America's long-standing love affair with the gridiron. But after reading The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America, Gregg Easterbrook's provocative look at the stranglehold football holds on our culture and our checkbooks, the chances are pretty good you'll never quite watch another high school, college or professional game again without feeling as much an enabler of greed and suffering as you do a fan.
In the abstract, football played at its highest skill level (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers notwithstanding) can be a wonderful display of athleticism, almost balletlike beauty and, of course, raw passion. But Easterbrook, who writes the Tuesday Morning Quarterback column for ESPN.com, also paints a dark, cynical and cruel portrait of a sublime sport subverted by money and an almost plantationlike treatment of players cast away and forgotten when they are too addled and too broken to perform anymore.
Every good drama needs a hero and a heavy. In King of Sports, Easterbrook finds in the football program at Virginia Tech a rare example of an upper-tier athletic department that seems to have its priorities in order, thanks to the principled influence of head coach Frank Beamer, who has led the Hokies onto the playing field for 26 years.
At Virginia Tech, for example, at team dinners the players with the highest GPAs, regardless of their status on the squad, eat first. And upon taking the field each Saturday, players pass through a tunnel adorned with the names of former players — but only those who actually graduated.
Other schools, Easterbrook notes, also maintain high academic standards for players — Notre Dame, Stanford, Boston College, Duke and a few others. But they are outliers within the National Collegiate Athletic Association, a megabillion-dollar enterprise where athletic performance on the field all too often trumps academic performance in the classroom. Consider, for example, that it is estimated barely 50 percent of all NFL players graduated from their universities. Yet the NFL perpetuates the myth of listing a player's university in press guides, neglecting to also mention whether he received a diploma.
High school football programs fare no better under Easterbrook's withering criticism. Once high school football was a seasonal extracurricular experience for young men. No longer. Today, given the pressure to earn scholarships and perhaps chase the nearly impossible dream of eventually playing in the NFL, many top-level high school programs are year-round endeavors with intense conditioning sessions and constant film study and practice, often to the exclusion of other high school activities — to the exclusion of letting young teenage boys simply be young teenage boys.
Easterbrook also cites the growing number of football camps around the country, which he views as little more than con games as players and parents pay exorbitant sums of money in the fraudulent belief that a child's skills will be brought to the attention of a big-name university program. They won't.
And finally there is this. If you are an avid NFL fan, you should know the level of drug abuse among players across the league who use massive doses of team-provided painkillers before every game is one of the sport's dark, dirty secrets. But it's all for your dining and dancing pleasure, just as gladiatorial battles were in Roman times.
Easterbrook offers a number of thoughtful suggestions to improve the sport and impose more accountability on the powers who control it.
Most radically, Easterbrook proposes that the vaunted NCAA football rankings not only be based on won/lost records but that 25 percent of the rating would factor in graduation rates for each school. Since the NCAA loves to give plenty of lip service to the academic prowess of its athletes, surely, who could quibble with this idea?
Easterbrook also suggests that scholarships awarded to players should be for four years of performing on the field and an additional two years to finally finish their studies with a degree. Makes sense. Will never happen.
At the same time, Easterbrook would force NFL teams to disclose all drugs dispensed to players. And here's the best one of all: The NFL headquarters should lose its absurd nonprofit status.
Good luck with that. After all, what king would ever give up his lucre so freely given from the pockets of his fawning peasants?